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New York Pastors Cautious as Mayor de Blasio Okays Worship in Public Schools

Gates Foundation

John Burger - published on 04/02/15

Supreme Court allows ban, but Big Apple leader promises accomodation

Despite a Supreme Court decision to let stand a lower court ruling against the use of public schools by religious organizations, the City of New York said this week it will allow such organizations to rent space in the schools for worship services after hours. 

The US Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up a challenge to the ruling that found a ban on the use of the space by churches constitutional.

But a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will develop rules "that respect the rights of both religious groups and nonparticipants."

“While we review and revise the rules, groups currently permitted to use schools for worship will continue to be able to worship on school premises,” the spokesman, Wiley Norvell, said in a statement.

In spite of the mayor’s decision, religious leaders were cautious. They were not only disappointed in the high court’s decision not to give them a hearing; they expressed fear that a future mayoral administration could easily take away what de Blasio is granting them.

“We are gratified that he is allowing the churches to stay,” Rev. Robert G. Hall, a pastor at the Bronx Household of Faith, the small evangelical church that brought the litigation to the Supreme Court, told The New York Times. “It remains to be seen what the long-term policy is going to be, however.”

Hall’s church last year finished work on its own building, but said it still needs extra space for events that include religious services, according to Religion News Service.

Likewise, Rev. Richard Del Rio, pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries, which since 2010 has rented space at a public school in Manhattan’s East Village, said, "One of the reasons we wanted to get the ruling is for ensuing administrations, because they could decide to change the rule again.”

In reporting on the decision, the Times painted de Blasio as a great facilitator of religious freedom in the Big Apple:

In addition to his pledge to allow the churches to worship in the schools, public prekindergarten classes will soon be able to include 
a midday break for observant students to pray. Schools will be 
closed citywide for two Muslim holy days. And he is 
poised to ease a health regulation governing a controversial circumcision ritual that is favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The pre-Kindergarten prayer time was part of the mayor’s push to provide universal pre-K for the city’s children, RNS said.

Last year, de Blasio said after the appeals court upheld the city’s ban: “I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserves access. You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent — but I think they deserve access."

But lest anyone think that God is making a comeback in public schools, the Times pointed out that the New York Civil Liberties Union is monitoring the situation.

… Donna Lieberman, executive director of the 
New York Civil Liberties Union, said she was delighted by the court’s decision and concerned the de Blasio administration was not taking seriously the issues that arise when schools become de facto churches on Sundays.

“They have an obligation to ensure that there is no appearance of official endorsement of any of the religious activities that go on in the schools,” Ms. Lieberman said.

Religious Freedom
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